KUOW's intrepid art critic, Gary Faigin, has gone far afield for his research, but wandering through a giant new sewage plant was beyond even his usual adventures. Thanks to a generous art budget and enlightened curation, good art was indeed discovered amidst the piping and machinery, so this month’s review gives us the art report from the waste treatment front.
We live, we love, we excrete. The first two topics have been the theme of art through the ages; the last one, not so much. But times change; several millions of dollars of public art have just been unveiled as part of the new Brightwater sewage plant, an enormous state-of-the-art treatment facility serving the northern suburbs of Seattle.
As one might expect, some pieces were better at their job of explaining then they were successful as stand-alone art, and others were puzzling until explained, but all of the works had their charms, and I saw several pieces that would be standouts no matter what their surroundings or intentions.
The fun begins as soon as one enters the property. Local artist Buster Simpson, a longtime player in the public art realm, greets the visitor with a dramatic presentation of the plant’s main product: the toilet water of thousands of households now running clean. Running down the median of the plant’s entrance boulevard is an enormous purple pipe held aloft by tubular concrete Y’s meant to suggest heroic figures doing their work (the least successful aspect of the piece), water dripping from its high open end into a giant mesh pipe and thus into the groundwater below. The vivid violet is the artist’s DayGlo version of the “official” purple color required for pipes carrying treated sewage water, considered safe for irrigation but not for drinking. With frequent large protrusions above and below, the conveyance looks vaguely like the spine of some enormous creature, and it does its job of feeling both whimsical and industrial. The whimsy is heightened both by two witty, mildly subversive gestures. Required by code to print a “Do Not Drink” warning on the pipe, Simpson decided to also include similar admonitions in Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew and dozens of other languages – just in case. Even more amusing is the sculpture at the upper end of the 600’ pipe: an enormous mouse head made up of a red ball with two small white ball ears. In actual fact representing a molecule of water (red=H, white=O), the creature seems to be sucking a purple pipe straw, as if breaking the rules by drinking the treated water. Elsewhere in the world, such water is considered safe; here, only the mouse is ready.
Most of the other artworks I saw (several more are to come) were either in the sewage plant itself, or in and around the inevitable education center, quite active with kids and microscopes the day I visited. The plant-sited works can only be seen on hard-hat tours, free but limited in hours. But as it happens, my favorite pieces were on the outside of the visitor center, viewable 24/7, and those I’ll describe in a moment.
The 3 pieces inside the factory gates are all large in scale and conception, how else is one to be noticed, surrounded by acres of industry and activity? Even so the work by Janet Zweig might be missed by a casual visitor, in spite of being 245 feet in length. Consisting of a giant steel pipe with an operable valve, mounted on a block-long perforated metal panel, Zweig’s piece is about the dilemma of a shared, finite resource. When the visitor turns the valve, a mechanism is activated like that of a vending machine, and a quarter-sized gold tile comes rattling down a chute. At this point the guide (everyone who gets this far has to have one) explains that one has a choice; keep the tile as a souvenir, or use its magnetic back to insert it into an empty circular slot on the adjacent metal panel. The artist estimates the 150,000 tiles she has stockpiled would be gone in seven years if all are removed, but she hopes that enough are left in the wall to start the process again when the original supply is depleted. As a metaphor for conservation and personal responsibility, the piece is dead-on; as a visual experience, not so much.
Nearby, the large tree-lined plaza and pool created by Jann Rosen-Queralt has the opposite affect; fun to look at, but trying to encompass a few too many ideas for its own good. Located at the point in the plant where pipes carrying the incoming dirty water and outgoing clean water cross, the installation attempts to reference the water cycle, the water molecule, water treatment and filtration, tidal action in estuaries, the act of breathing, the relationship between a large hedge and the plant’s treatment capacity, and the cumulative effect of household drips. No artwork can carry this much water, pun intended; idea overload is a common issue with public art, where good intentions and ongoing committee input can tempt one to do too much with a single work. Ironically, the active part of the piece is really fun to look at, judging from the video (it was not operating the day of my visit), with an impressive rush of water through an metal chute and a weird metallic jellyfish centerpiece that pumps out a concrete pool using a sort of mechanical dance.
A better balance is struck by the last of the inside-the-plant pieces, a viewing platform conceived by Jane Tsong. Tsong keeps it simple – we go up stairs to the roof of the final treatment building, where the cleaned water cascades down one of two parallel airshafts - to be sent off to sea, or to water the local plants. Visible inside the streams are brief poetic messages about the water cycle, written with local author Judith Roche and spelled out in giant metallic script, large enough and clear enough to be readable underneath the roaring cascade. One set of messages is designed in forced perspective, with each successive mounted line made smaller so as to seem much further away, like a voice slowly fading off in the distance, taking its leave of us along with the departing water.
The two very strongest works, found elsewhere on the property, required no text at all to enjoy, and are fascinating and complex enough visually to reward repeated visits. That one of the pieces is by Seattle sculptor Chris Bruch is no surprise; not nearly as well-known as he deserves to be, he is one of the best sculptors in the Northwest with a long and distinguished career, but very little in the way of public exposure in his home town. His contribution to the Brightwater art experience is two metal sculptures mounted on the outside wall of the visitor’s center, both serving as elaborate downspouts for rainwater flowing off the roof. The word “Steampunk” was invented for the first of these two pieces, a visual metaphor for the way man-made systems attempt to channel the forces and products of the natural world. Bruch has assembled a network of hundreds of steel pipe fittings, branching and diminishing as they descend, a Rube Goldberg satire on industrial design, as the product of all this complexity and plumbing are nothing more than a series of simple drips and sputters , draining the roof water onto the rain garden below. A matching metal network uses the same pipe fittings, but here they are assembled to mimic a tree branch or vine, twisting and writhing through space. This second piece seems to be a commentary on the whole environmentally-aware Brightwater project itself, attempting to mimic natural process but using entirely man-made methodology.
Nearby is a spooky blue window cabinet of wonders, composed of a series of hundreds of custom-made glass elements representing the world of science on the one hand, and the world of microbes on the other. Local artist Ellen Sollod collaborated with various glass manufacturers and artists, and her array of test tubes, beakers, flasks, funnels, is not as functional as it seems; industrial glass spheres have spouted multiple eye stalks here, and multiple leg extensions there. Likewise, her giant-sized glass microorganisms, each framed in a circular surround as though being seen through a microscope, are fantasies on life forms, not literal life forms themselves. Like Bruch (and unlike the engineers and scientists they both reference), Sollod is taking advantage of the freedom of the artist to imagine a fluid overlap between the worlds of nature, art, and science, where one is able to mix and match the best features of each, all in the service of artistic insight and inspiration.